G is for Godot’s Paradox

| April 30, 2014

I was debating between “D is for Documentation” and “E is for Evaluation” for this post, because it’s about both, but it turns out I needed the letters. Such a sacrifice.

Well, it’s also about the paradox of Godot, New Orleans (one of the socially engaged art projects in Artificial Hells), so I’m going with that.

The paradox is the documentation, is the evaluation: how should we evaluate “socially engaged art,” and based on what documentation?

Artificial Hells—which is itself a documentation and evaluation of socially engaged art—says the “best” documentation of Godot, New Orleans was Chan’s (the artist’s) PowerPoint presentation on the project, given after the fact, away from the city. (You can already see the hint of a paradox here; an author argues for a best documentation, within her own documentation and evaluation of that socially engaged art project—but if she does not believe it to be the best documentation/evaluation, why is it worth writing?)

Chan’s presentation, though, is really an evaluation in the traditional mold of art criticism; that is, it focuses heavily on the “art” side, rather than the “social engagement” side. If Chan’s project is to be called art, Bishop certainly judges it as such; she makes the primary criterion of evaluation value-as-a-work-of-art, emphasizing the artist, the work (as a unit rather than a process), and the artist’s account of the work. The best documentation is the documentation of these emphasized things. This is one side of the paradox.

But what if we are to judge Godot, New Orleans based on some tangible documentation directly emerging from the art-as-process, some real effect of Chan’s project on the people of New Orleans? The effect of the free acting lessons, the free workshops, the free classes taught by Chan… This is “social engagement” value. After all, Chan’s stated goal for the project involved some grand scheme of unity between him, the actors, the people, and the city; not, say, to capture in traditional art the post-Katrina New Orleans, like the photographer who photographs a starving African child but does not feed him.

Of course, this is criticism based on the secondhand evaluation of the project in Artificial Hells, and its “best documentation” argument. That is, perhaps all we can say is that the project is written about in very traditional terms of evaluation.

Still, if we counter this traditional evaluation and take the “best” documentation to be those tangible effects—therefore, take “best” to mean either “morally best” or “best proof of fulfillment of the project’s goals”—then are we negating the predicate “art” in “socially engaged art”? Then, is it only social engagement, and not only that, inferior social engagement in comparison to projects more extensively devoted to Katrina aid per se? This is the second side of the paradox, which, in full, goes something like: we cannot evaluate socially engaged art for its art, nor for its social engagement, so how can we evaluate it, and from what documentation?